Memphis @ Shubert Theater

NEW YORK, NY—It’s Memphis, Tennessee, in 1951 before the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll. Black kids are rockin’ to soulful rhythm ‘n’ blues (as exemplified onstage by some funkin’ dynamic choreography by Sergio Trujillo who choreographed Jersey Boys). White kids are bored by cardboard singers like Perry Coma and radio fare like “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window” by Patti Page.

Huey Calhoun is the only white face in a Beale Street blues bar. He’s tolerated because he truly loves the music. He also has a crush on the bar owner’s daughter, the sinewy and sexy singer Felicia. He’s there every night just soaking it up. During the day, he has an idea to rev up sales in the department store he works at by playing “race music,” as it was called then, through the store-wide speaker system, instead of the usual white mush. He’s quickly fired but he lucks out getting a job at the local radio station.

Huey, as played by the eminently likeable Chad Kimball, is a goofy oddball who wears mismatched clothing, but who can sing and dance up a storm. After he starts spinning some hot rhythm ‘n’ blues on his after-hours radio show (more wild soul struttin’ and organic jump-blues craziness ensues onstage), it becomes the number one show in town.

Unlike a lot of musical theater wherein an engaging story is usually hindered by, “Oh no, not another song,” the music of Memphis is so good and soulfully wild, that one sits in anticipation of the next song. This original music—both words and music—was written by none other than Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan.

Huey can rap a mile-a-minute and soon that sexy singer falls for him. Problem is, in 1951 Tennessee, it’s illegal for whites and blacks to marry. He wants to make her a star. She just wants to sing. And sing she does! The material gives her ample opportunity for numerous show-stoppers that drip with sex. Montego Glover, who originated the role when this production debuted in La Jolla, California, before hitting Broadway, is as enticing a leading lady as you’re ever going to see.
Huey winds up getting his own local television show but production is shut down when he just cannot control himself and winds up kissing the love of his life on television. White-on-black lips is obviously a big no-no. Will Felicia and Huey break deep-south racist attitudes? Will Felicia become a star? Will Huey get to play this exciting new kind of music before getting kicked off the radio?

The plot twists surprise. The music gets even more adventurous and daring. The dancing gets insane. Memphis looks early on as if it’s going to be predictable but isn’t. Huey stands up for himself against the TV and radio powers-that-be. He knows in his soul that this music is far superior to the limp white goop masquerading as youth culture back then. History, of course, has proved him right. The story itself may be fiction but it rings with universal truth. Huey is a composite of numerous brave DJs back then.

The music is sublime. The band, complete with one kickin’ horn section, is satisfyingly loud. At 2:45 p.m., with a 15-minute intermission, it goes by all-too-quick.

Who knew David Bryan from Bon Jovi had this much in him?